Bayou City

Texas Legislator Shot in Head by Celebratory Gunfire Wants Stricter Penalties

Texas Legislator Shot in Head by Celebratory Gunfire Wants Stricter Penalties
Courtesy Armando Martinez
It was minutes into the new year when the bullet that almost killed him fell from the sky.

State Representative Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco) was ringing in 2017 out in the country, just north of Weslaco in Hidalgo County, where several other families he was with were shooting off fireworks. The fireworks were indistinguishable from the gunshots, he said, and so when the bullet impaled the left side of his head — as he was standing in between his wife and his son — Martinez had no idea what hit him. Then he ran his finger over the small hole, which was oozing blood.

His wife rushed him to the emergency room, where a CT scan revealed the bullet, poking into his brain's neuro-matter — just two millimeters away from rupturing his brain, doctors told him.

“When a physician tells you two millimeters more and we wouldn't be having a conversation right now,” Martinez told the Houston Press Wednesday, “that kind of makes you think.”

Particularly about proposing legislation to curb celebratory gunfire, the near-certain cause of his injury.

Martinez was able to fully recover from the gunshot wound following neurosurgery on New Year's Day (and now has a penny-size metal plate in his head). Almost immediately after coming home Monday, he said, he began talking to his staff about reviewing Texas's current laws covering celebratory gunfire and brainstorming what could be done to perhaps increase the punishment.

Because it isn't just a problem in rural Texas.

In Houston, police received 688 calls from people hearing random gunshots between the night of December 31 and the early morning of January 1, Houston Police Department spokesman Victor Senties said. At least one Houstonian was shot in the chest, near his heart, while he was outside at a neighborhood party, according to KTRK. And another 82-year-old grandma, who lives with her wheelchair-bound daughter, told KPRC that, shortly after midnight, a random bullet came whizzing through their home. The round shot through a picture of Barack Obama in the living room, went through the wall and lodged near the kitchen sink.

On New Year's Eve 2014, a Houston man died shortly after midnight when a bullet, most likely from celebratory gunfire, hit him in the head while he was watching fireworks.

"You hear it all over the place, and this needs to change," Martinez said. "A responsible gun owner isn't going to fire his weapon up in the air."

Current Texas law makes shooting your gun without legitimate reason in a public place a Class B misdemeanor under disorderly conduct, punishable with up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. (Unless you're shooting it on or across a public road which for whatever reason, is only a Class C misdemeanor, equivalent to getting a traffic ticket.) In cities with more than 100,000 people, it is illegal to recklessly fire anywhere and is a Class A misdemeanor.

Still, the Texas Tribune's Texplainer made some good points about how this section of the penal code does not account for various other possible scenarios — like, for example, firing your gun in the air on a private ranch in a rural area north of Weslaco.

Martinez said he is considering proposing making it a felony to discharge a firearm into the air recklessly anywhere, similar to a law called Shannon's Law in Arizona, named for a teenage girl who died after a stray bullet hit her in the head while she was talking on the phone in her backyard. Her family and hundreds of supporters launched a massive campaign across the state to make the law change possible.

No such campaign took place following the death of one of Houston's own after New Year's Eve 2014. Martinez said he's happy to have survived the freakish injury so that he can be the one to wage it.

"A lot of times people in the Legislature, we receive legislation because it's something that affects somebody. They'll come to us, and we'll carry it for them," Martinez said. "So when it's something that happens directly to you, of course we're going to file something — especially if it can help save lives. Why wouldn't we?"
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn